By Jonathan Gault
September 7, 2020
NEWTON, Mass — The text came last Wednesday night from Brian Tabb. He was putting on a small professional track meet outside of Boston on Labor Day. Did I want to come?
Hell yeah, I wanted to come.
The last time I “covered” a meet in person was the NCAA Indoor Championships almost six months ago. I flew out to that meet on the morning of March 12, just as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a big thing in the United States; within two hours of landing in Albuquerque, the meet had been cancelled. I never even made it to the track; I simply returned to the airport and flew home.
(Editor’s note: The last meet that actually took place that Jonathan covered in person was the 2020 NYRR Millrose Games on February 8, 2020).
One of the best parts of my job is that I’m paid to travel to cool places to watch track & field. And this summer was shaping up as the best one yet. NCAAs in Austin. The Olympic Trials — perhaps the single greatest track meet on Earth — in Eugene. A midsummer European trip for the London and Monaco Diamond Leagues, the latter a bucket-list item. And of course, the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Instead — and we all know why — I went to precisely zero track meets this summer.
It was glorious. Normally the pro races at the Forward Spine & Sport Labor Day Showdown wouldn’t excite me too much. The fields weren’t bad — Molly Huddle was entered in the 5,000, Johnny Gregorek in the 800, Eric Jenkins in the 3,000 — but it’s not the races that left me buzzing when I departed Newton North High School this evening. I saw a starter’s pistol fire. I heard the click-clack of spikes on a hard red track. I interviewed athletes in person for the first time in half a year.
I even experienced things I’d never usually be privy to at a meet — the strained breaths and grunts in the finish straight that normally get drowned out by the crowd. But that’s what happens when the loudest area of the stadium is behind the fence surrounding the first turn instead of the finish line bleachers (with a strict 50-person capacity limit in the stadium, the finish area was barren and eerily quiet).
Track meets in the United States look different in 2020 — but not too different. Yes, I had to wear a mask the entire time. Yes, it was a little quieter than usual. But elite runners — even two-time Olympians like Huddle — aren’t unfamiliar with racing on high school tracks in front of sparse crowds.
“It didn’t feel too different to me from an Adrian Martinez [Classic],” Huddle said.
It wasn’t very different on the track, either. Huddle ran the 5,000, her first race since dropping out of the Olympic Marathon Trials in February. And you’re not going to believe this (sarcasm), but she led a good chunk of it and wound up winning in 15:20.80.
There was one new variable for Huddle, however: in-person interactions. Huddle is not a hugger by nature, but said she had to fight the urge to make significant human contact this evening, an elbow bump replacing the traditional post-race high-five.
“I saw my [running] friends again, so that was fun,” Huddle said. “I haven’t seen these people in a looong time other than Zoom. That part, I felt like an excited dog, just running up to people but trying not to get too close, wagging my tail.”
As hinted above, there were actual races on Monday to discuss, so let’s get to them. The women’s 5,000 seems an appropriate place to start, since it was the reason for this entire meet’s existence. Elaina Tabb — Brian’s wife, who runs for the BAA — was in PR shape and in need of a race. So they decided to create one for her. Elaina made some calls; it turned out she wasn’t the only one who wanted to race.
Suddenly Brian was directing his first-ever meet, and they had four elite races. Olympic 1500 champ Matthew Centrowitz was even scheduled to compete but wound up as a scratch.
Elaina got her PR, knocking almost five seconds off her best to run 15:27.89. And a bunch of other athletes — almost all of them based in the Northeast — got a chance to run against quality competition.
Huddle, fairly predictably, won the 5,000, though she admitted after the race that her 15:20 winning time was evidence that she wasn’t quite at her best.
“It felt good to race again,” said Huddle, who owns a 14:42 pb. “I definitely just don’t feel poppy.”
Huddle, who closed in 4:52 for her final 1600 and 67 for her last lap, knows she has work to do if she is to make her third Olympic team next summer. Though Huddle is the American record holder (30:13.17) and five-time defending US champion in the 10,000 meters, she’s not treating it as a given that she’ll be on the team next year.
“The young girls are getting faster,” Huddle says.
But Huddle also has plenty of room for improvement. And with no immediate goal race to target, Huddle has scaled back her training for now — “I’m 36, so I can’t be just training all-out for no reason.” Once there is more certainty about the global track & field schedule, expect to see the Huddle of old return.
Eric Jenkins — remember him? — got the win in the men’s 3,000. He’s hoping it marks a return to form after two years of injury struggles. The 28-year-old Jenkins, a two-time NCAA champion at Oregon, made his first Worlds team in 2017, but the last two years have been rough. He tore his plantar fascia at the Pre Classic in 2019, which caused him to miss USAs and the rest of the outdoor season. He rebounded to run 13:10 indoors in February 2020 — under the Olympic standard — but developed some Achilles issues afterward and decided to take it easy rather than try to train/race through it in a year without the Olympics.
While it’s been difficult for Jenkins to see the other members of his Pete Julian-coached training group such as Donavan Brazier and Craig Engels heading off to Europe to race and occasionally live it up on a yacht in the Mediterranean — “I’m very jealous” — Jenkins was pleased with the progress he’s been making.
Today’s race was certainly a step in the right direction. After sitting on HOKA NJ*NY TC athletes Graham Crawford, Travis Mahoney, and Isaac Updike through the first six-and-a-half laps, Jenkins took off on the back straight, striking with devastating suddenness. None could answer him, and though the winning time (7:50.97) was 12 seconds off his best, he won by nearly 1.5 seconds and the 56-second last lap suggested that Jenkins is on the right track. Most importantly, he is healthy — and hoping to stay that way as he chases his first Olympic berth in 2021.
“I’m 100% and I’m very confident of where I’ll be able to end up,” Jenkins said.
The men’s 800 was a victory for home favorite Sam Ellison of the BAA — loud “Go Sam!” cheers could be heard throughout the race — as he gained revenge on NJ*NY’s Colby Alexander, who outkicked him in an 800 in West Hartford, Conn., earlier this summer.
While the entire seven-man field was bunched with 200 to go, the race came down to Ellison — who had taken the lead just before hitting the bell in 54 seconds — and Alexander, who moved past Ellison coming off the final turn. This time, however, Ellison was prepared for the kick of Alexander, who finished second at the US road mile champs in Des Moines on August 29, and wound up pulling away with 80 meters to go, winning in 1:48.43 to Alexander’s 1:48.65. Gregorek, the 2017 World Championship finalist at 1500, was third in 1:48.99.
“I knew he was coming, so I was trying to wait as long as I could to really start turning it on,” Ellison said. “Colby, I know he’s had a couple down years, but he’s been running really well this summer. So I wasn’t trying to give him any space.”
NJ*NY’s Danielle Aragon won the fourth pro race of the night, the women’s 800, in 2:04.86.